Canadian Co-ops and Credit Unions Forge International Links (1996)

    This document has been made available in electronic format
         by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA 
                         December, 1996

          (Source: ICA News, Issue No.6, 1996, pp.2-3)

            Canadian Co-ops and Credit Unions Forge
                      International Links

                         by John Julian*
            of the Canadian Co-operative Association

At first glance, Fort St. John in B.C.'s Peace River District,
in the extreme northwest of Canada,  might seem to have very
little in common with the town of Lichtenburg in the sun-baked
Transvaal region of South Africa. Yet these two far-flung
communities share a powerful connection.

The strongest link is a human one. Ingrid Fischer is the general
manager of North Peace Savings and Credit Union in Fort St. John.

In 1994 she spent seven months in the Transvaal sharing her
expertise with a tiny, emerging credit union in Lichtenburg. 
Another connection is the Canadian Co-operative Association
(CCA), the national association of co-operatives and credit
unions in the English speaking areas of Canada. In addition to
various domestic roles, CCA is the international development arm
for its Canadian members. It initiated and continues to support
the partnership with credit unions in British Columbia that took
Ingrid Fischer to South Africa.  

A third link between these two communities, according to Fischer,
is a shared belief in the power of co-operation in strengthening
communities. "Both credit unions arise from needs within the
communities they serve," Fischer said. "Here, farmers needed
access to credit that they couldn't get from banks. My experience
in South Africa is that black people have great difficulty in
getting credit. In both cases we had a need that was not being
met, and a group of people within the community who were willing
to work together to meet that need."

North Peace Savings and Credit Union, with assets of Canadian $63
million and more than 6,500 members has been an engine of
economic growth and stability in a region which suffers
from the vagaries of a resource based economy. In Lichtenburg,
with Ingrid Fischer's help, Itireleng Credit Union has doubled
its asset base to more than 1 million rand (Canadian $400,000),
allowing its 170 members to improve their housing, to purchase
vehicles, and to finance the education of their children.  

For more than 20 years CCA has helped to link the co-operative
system in Canada with emerging organizations in the developing
world. With the financial backing of the Federal government
through the Canadian International Development Agency, Canadian
co-operatives have assisted thousands of co-operative
organizations in more than 40 countries to strengthen communities
and improve income levels for members. Co-operatives and credit
unions contribute money to the cause, and each year more than
fifty co-operative employees and leaders, like Ingrid Fischer,
contribute their skills and experience.

The fact that co-operatives worldwide operate from a common set
of principles provides a common base of understanding that makes
it easier to transfer specific skills or expertise. And because
of the success of co-operative ventures in this country, Canadian
expertise is much in demand.

The partnership that CCA has developed between the credit unions
of British Columbia and South Africa is a case in point. In spite
of a well developed banking sector, the majority of black South
Africans have had no access to the financial services they need
in order to develop economically. Credit co-ops are filling that

Kwedie Mkalipi, a former anti-apartheid activist who served 18
years in prison for his opposition to the former regime, is
general secretary of the Savings and Credit Co-operative League
of South Africa.  

"Because of the apartheid system, we were very isolated when we
first sought to develop our movement," Mkalipi said recently. "We
went looking for help within South Africa but the advice received
came from people who did not understand co-operatives. It was
like asking directions from a one-eyed man.  He will point you
in the only direction he can see."

"With CCA we entered into a true co-operative partnership. 
Others had said, `That is the way to Jericho. Go that way.' CCA
said, `We know the road to Jericho. Travel with us'."

Helping the development of the co-operative movement in a poorer
country can lead to business opportunities and other benefits for
the donor co-operatives. Because co-operatives have a business
focus, it is not uncommon for development partnerships to evolve
into business relationships. For example, for more than 10 years
CCA, in partnership with the Colombian Association of
Co-operatives (ASCOOP), has provided support to small
co-operatives serving the poor of that country. Today, a self-
sufficient ASCOOP continues to provide those services on its own.

However, at a time of rapidly expanding trade relations between
the two countries, CCA has maintained its involvement in Colombia
in order to help co-operatives on both sides of the equation
capitalize on the commercial possibilities.

Luis Arturo Munoz, general manager of ASCOOP, describes this as
a maturing of the relationship between the two organizations. 
CCA, he says, provided support when it was needed, but it also
pushed ASCOOP to become self-sufficient. Now, as equals, CCA and
ASCOOP are researching various business opportunities, such as
importing tropical fruit from Colombia into Canada.  

While commercial activities in Colombia are still at the research
stage, CCA's work in other countries has yielded concrete
commercial results. In Costa Rica, for example, beans are now
being purchased from Alberta Wheat Pool, a CCA member
organization. B.C. Tree Fruits, another CCA member co-operative,
was involved, for a time, in a joint-venture fruit packing
operation in China as a result of CCA development activities

Not all of the benefits realized by Canadian organizations
through their involvement with CCA are strictly financial. For
many of the Canadians who volunteer their time to work overseas,
the experience is a life-changing event, both professionally and

John Wipf is an actuarial student with The Co-operators Group
Ltd., a large Canadian insurance co-operative. He has made three
visits to the Philippines, totalling nearly 12 months, to assist
an emerging co-operative insurance company there. "I think I am
much more effective in my own job because of that experience,"
he said. "It matured me in many ways. Because of that experience
I have much deeper insights into my own profession than I had

For Wipf, working with CCA helped him realize some of his own
potential. In many respects, realizing potential is what the
Canadian Co-operative Association's work is all about.  

Mkalipi of South Africa describes it this way. "CCA identified
in us a sleeping giant. They have done a great deal of work to
make that sleeping giant awake. I am convinced that before the
end of this century we will have credit unions in South Africa
to rival those in North America."


*  John Julian is Director of Institutional Relations, CCA